For the past year, Lucy Perry and her longtime boyfriend William Royal have lived beneath a traffic sign on the sidewalk along Southwest Second Street under I-95. With about four dozen other homeless people, they wait for a church group to come by and hand out styrofoam containers of food.
Perry, Royal and many others out on the street are among the 350,000 people who lost their food stamps this year because of new state rules that adults without children who can work must work in order to get the monthly assistance.
People immediately form lines when the trucks of food pull up.
“These people have gone all day with nothing, not a sandwich or nothing,” says Royal.
For years, Royal and Perry each got $194 in food stamps per month, the highest amount allowed under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
They’d use the money at Publix buying the tightly regulated allowable items, which excludes hot foods.
“Because of us being homeless, we don’t have no way to cook so you get sandwiches, lunch meats, peanut butter and jelly -- stuff like that that can last,” says Perry.
In March, Perry stopped getting food stamps. “Now, I’m having to go out here and ask people for help just to eat, and that’s embarrassing as hell,” she says. “I hate it. I hate being out here.”
In order to understand why she got cut off, you have to go back to 2009. Before then, if you were an adult without kids and were able-bodied you had to work at least 80 hours per month in order to get food stamps. Certain work training or volunteer programs also fulfilled the requirements.
Come 2009, deep into the recession, there were so few jobs that the federal government allowed states with high unemployment to ask to waive those work requirements.
But starting this year, with Florida’s economy doing better overall, the state couldn’t ask for another waiver. On top of that, during last year’s legislative session the state passed a law that prevented the Department of Children and Families, which administers SNAP in Florida, from asking for a waiver on its own. Instead DCF would have to get legislative approval. But that legislation did not take effect until Jan. 1, so it is unclear why DCF did not request a waiver for areas within the state that would still have met eligibility requirement before that date. There is no deadline for such a request.
“I did not appreciate... what this was going to do,” said Liam McGivern, as attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami. He represents Perry and other people in her situation pro bono. He has filed a law suit on Perry's behalf against DCF. “When I started looking into it I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a real mess,’ but then when we saw the implementation of it... it's far worse than we thought it was going to be.”
Of the 447,000 people found to be subject to the work requirements, almost 80 percent have been sanctioned for failing to comply.
DCF declined requests for an interview, but sent a written statement saying:
Florida’s unemployment rate is at an eight-year low of 4.9 percent. No Floridian currently receiving benefits will lose their eligibility because work requirements were implemented. In order to continue to receive benefits, recipients must meet federal requirements by working, volunteering or being active in job -earch activities unless they meet a federally allowable exemption or exception. As of 2016, Florida’s improved economy makes the state ineligible for a statewide waiver from the federal government.
The statement goes on to outline how the agency notified people who would be affected by the changes and says that anyone who think they have been exempt to “contact DCF for review of their specific situation.”
“What we're seeing are people who are too disabled to work losing their food stamps,” says McGivern. “The population that we're seeing are people who are largely homeless and who suffer from mental health conditions. So they're not well equipped to be engaging with the system in the way that they're being required to do.”
Lucy Perry, though, did do everything she was supposed to do. She got a letter in the mailbox she has at a local homeless shelter. She registered online as it instructed; she tried to tell DCF that she was disabled and shouldn’t be subject to the work requirements.
But Perry heard nothing back until she found out she had been sanctioned.
In Florida if you can’t show that you’re working or meet the work requirements some other way, you get penalized and lose your food stamps for the following month. If you fail to meet the requirements again, it's a three-month sanction and then six months.
The federal law that mandates work requirements outlines what is effectively a three-month grace period every 36 months. Within that rule, people are allowed to not meet the requirements for up to three months and still receive benefits, a time limit. But with sanctions in Florida, that buffer period effectively does not exist in practice.
On the block where Perry stays as people eat their food, attorney Liam McGivern and another lawyer from Legal Services go around and hand out dozens of business cards as they talk with people who also lost their food stamps. But McGivern says this is an issue that shouldn't take lawyers to resolve.
“We're talking about $194 in food stamps,” says McGivern. “You have DCF attorneys involved. You have legal services attorneys involved just to get a note from a doctor to an agency saying that a homeless person is too disabled to work. Just for the most basic benefit, a little bit of money in food stamps.”
McGivern and others are challenging DCF on its implementation of the work requirements, using Lucy Perry as a test case.
Last week, Perry finally got a phone call from DCF. With McGivern’s help, she got her food stamps back retroactively. However, Legal Services is still moving forward with its suit to challenge the DCF on how it notified people about the changing requirements and the agency's process for dealing with people who think they should not have been sanctioned.